Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Moldovan education

One of the best ways to learn language and culture is to read the same textbooks that children read in school. In post-Soviet countries there are textbooks for teaching Russian to non-native Russian speakers. I discovered this method in Azerbaijan, where I bought a collection of books teaching Azeri to Russian-sector students. They were all printed in Soviet times, and had lots of stories about the horrors of child labor in evil Capitalist countries like America. It gives you an idea of what the government wanted children to know early.

So, I found a textbook for teaching Russian to primarily Moldovan-speaking 6th graders. It’s filled with wonderful stories, Moldovan poems, legends, and information about the country. (Fortunately, it was printed in 1997, so nothing bad about Capitalists). Here are a couple that struck me as, well…Moldovan.

One exercise required putting the sentences in proper order. Yes, I did it correctly:

1. Tanya put on her fall coat and went out into the yard.
2. There were other girls there.
3. Tanya began to play.
4. She ran and began to get hot.
5. Tanya unzipped her coat.
6. And then she drank some cold water.
7. That evening, Tanya became ill.
8. Her throat and head hurt badly.
9. Tanya was sick a long time.
10. Later, the doctor came and gave her medicine.

The exercise’s discussion question: Why did Tanya get sick?

In Eastern European countries there isn’t much said about microbes and washing your hands but there is a lot said about “never drink cold drinks,” and “stay away from any draft!” The tightly-bundled babies in the summer and the looks of horror older people have when they feel a draft on the minibus is evidence of this.

There’s a section in the book that features Aesop-like fables with animals. Most have a good moral to the story. Then, there’s this one:

“A cat was happily playing in the meadow with her kittens. At that time above them, a giant hawk flew by. He saw the kittens and swooped down to the ground. The hawk snatched up one of the kittens. But he couldn’t make it back into the air because the mother-cat pouncedon him. The fight began.
The hawk let go of the kitten and began to tear the skin of the mother cat with his claws. He poked the cat in the eye but the cat didn’t give way. She threw the hawk to the ground and grabbed him by the throat. The hawk couldn’t get free from the mother-cat. And the cat bit off his head. And thus, the fight ended.

Wow. I guess the moral of the story is “it’s a cruel world out there.” Or, “don’t mess with the mother-cat.”

My least-favorite story is one that goes like this:

“The teacher called Vasile to her desk and asked him to write on the blackboard in Russian: ‘Radu eats lunch at 2:00.’
Vasile went to the blackboard and wrote: ‘Radu eats lunch in the course of 2 hours.’
All the students began laughing, and Vasile asks them why.
‘Shame on you for not paying attention!’ one of his classmates said.”

Ah, the traumatic and brutal education of public schools. Radu’s mistake in Russian was a common one of forgetting to write the preposition “at.” This probably happens often in my Russian speech as well, but I’d rather just be told I made a mistake rather than “Shame on you for being careless!” But, Vasile probably never made that mistake again, so maybe it really is a good thing.

So, just a couple examples of what I learn while studying. Much of the book is surprisingly a-political, not much history or discussion of current events or even geography. Much of it is just about family, nature, and education. I will probably keep it forever.

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